Almost a year before the time of these calamities the Duchessa had made a singular acquaintance: one day when she had the luna, as they say in those parts, she had gone suddenly, towards evening, to her villa of Sacca, situated on the farther side of Colorno, on the hill commanding the Po. She was amusing herself in improving this property; she loved the vast forest which crowned the hill and reached to the house; she spent her time laying out paths in picturesque directions.
“You will have yourself carried off by brigands, fair Duchessa,” the Prince said to her one day; “it is impossible that a forest in which it is known that you take the air should remain deserted.” The Prince threw a glance at the Conte, whose jealousy he hoped to quicken.
“I have no fear, Serene Highness,” replied the Duchessa with an innocent air, “when I go walking in my woods; I reassure myself with this thought: I have done no harm to anyone, who is there that could hate me?” This speech was considered daring, it recalled the insults offered by the Liberals of the country, who were most insolent people.
On the day of the walk in question, the Prince’s words came back to the mind of the Duchessa as she observed a very ill-dressed man who was following her at a distance through the woods. At a sudden turn which she took in the course of her walk, this person came so near her that she felt alarmed. Her first impulse was to call her game-keeper whom she had left half a mile away, in the flower-garden close to the house. The stranger had time to overtake her and fling himself at her feet. He was young, extremely good looking, but horribly badly dressed; his clothes had rents in them a foot long, but his eyes burned with the fire of an ardent soul.
“I am under sentence of death, I am the physician, Ferrante Palla, I am dying of hunger, I and my five children.”
The Duchessa had noticed that he was terribly thin; but his eyes were so fine, and filled with so tender an exaltation that they took from him any suggestion of crime. “Pallagi,” she thought, “might well have given eyes like those,to the Saint John in the Desert he has just placed in the Cathedral.” The idea of Saint John was suggested to her by the incredible thinness of the vagabond. The Duchessa gave him three sequins which she had in her purse, with an apology for offering him so little, because she had just paid her gardener’s account. Ferrante thanked her effusively. “Alas!” he said to her, “once I lived in towns, I used to see beautiful women; now that in fulfilment of my duties as a citizen I have had myself sentenced to death, I live in the woods, and I was following you, not to demand alms of you nor to rob you, but like a savage fascinated by an angelic beauty. It is so long since I last saw a pair of lovely white hands.”
“Rise, then,” the Duchessa told him; for he had remained on his knees.
“Allow me to remain like this,” said Ferrante; “this posture proves to me that I am not for the present engaged in robbery, and that soothes me; for you must know that I steal to live, now that I am prevented from practising my profession. But at this moment I am only a simple mortal who is adoring sublime beauty.” The Duchessa gathered that he was slightly mad, but she was not at all afraid; she saw in the eyes of the man that he had a good and ardent soul, and besides she had no objection to extraordinary physiognomies.
“I am a physician, then, and I was making love to the wife of the apothecary Sarasine of Parma: he took us by surprise and drove us from the house, with three children whom he supposed, and rightly, to be mine and not his. I have had two since then. The mother and five children are living in the direst poverty in a sort of hut which I built with my own hands a league from here, in the wood. For I have to keep away from the police, and the poor woman refuses to be parted from me. I was sentenced to death, and quite justly; I was conspiring. I abominate the Prince, who is a tyrant. I did not fly the country, for want of money. My misfortunes have greatly increased, and I ought to have killed myself a thousand times over; I no longer love the unhappy woman who has borne me these five children and has ruined herself for me; I love another. But if I kill myself, the five children will literally starve to death.” The man spoke with an accent of sincerity.
“But how do you live?” inquired the Duchessa, moved to compassion.
“The children’s mother spins; the eldest girl is kept in a farm by some Liberals, where she tends the sheep; I am a highwayman on the road between Piacenza and Genoa.”
“How do you harmonise highway robbery with your Liberal principles?”
“I keep a note of the people I rob, and if ever I have anything I shall restore to them the sums I have taken. I consider that a Tribune of the People like myself is performing work which, in view of its danger, is well worth a hundred francs monthly; and so I am careful not to take more than twelve hundred francs in a year.
“No, I am wrong, I steal a small sum in addition, for in that way I am able to meet the cost of printing my works.”
“Is ——— ever to have a Chamber and a Budget?”
“What,” said the Duchessa in amazement, “it is you, Sir, who are one of the greatest poets of the age, the famous Ferrante Palla?”
“Famous perhaps, but most unfortunate; that is certain.”
“And a man of your talent, Sir, is obliged to steal in order to live?”
“That is perhaps the calling for which I have some talent. Hitherto all our authors who have made themselves famous have been men paid by the government or the religion that they sought to undermine. I, in the first place, risk my life; in the second place, think, Signora, of the reflexions that disturb my mind when I go out to rob! Am I in the right, I ask myself. Does the office of Tribune render services that are really worth a hundred francs a month? I have two shirts, the coat in which you see me, a few worthless weapons, and I am sure to end by the rope; I venture to think that I am disinterested. I should be happy but for this fatal love which allows me to find only misery now in the company of the mother of my children. Poverty weighs upon me because it is ugly: I like fine clothes, white hands. . . . ”
He looked at the Duchessa’s in such a fashion that fear seized hold of her.
“Good-bye, Sir,” she said to him: “can I be of any service to you in Parma?”
“Think sometimes of this question: his task is to awaken men’s hearts and to prevent them from falling asleep in that false and wholly material happiness which is given by monarchies. Is the service that he renders to his fellow-citzens worth a hundred francs a month? . . . My misfortune is that I am in love,” he said in the gentlest of tones, “and for nearly two years my heart has been occupied by you alone, but until now I have seen you without alarming you.” And he took to his heels with a prodigious swiftness which astonished the Duchessa and reassured her. “The police would have hard work to catch him,” she thought; “he must be mad, after all.”
“He is mad,” her servants informed her; “we have all known for a long time that the poor man was in love with the Signora; when the Signora is here we see him wandering in the highest parts of the woods, and as soon as the Signora has gone he never fails to come and sit in the very places where she has rested; he is careful to pick up any flowers that may have dropped from her nosegay and keeps them for a long time fastened in his battered hat.”
“And you have never spoken to me of these eccentricities,” said the Duchessa, almost in a tone of reproach.
“We were afraid that the Signora might tell the Minister Mosca. Poor Ferrante is such a good fellow! He has never done harm to anyone, and because he loves our Napoleon they have sentenced him to death.”
She said no word to the Minister of this meeting, and, as in four years it was the first secret that she had kept from him, a dozen times she was obliged to stop short in the middle of a sentence. She returned to Sacca with a store of gold. Ferrante shewed no sign of life. She came again a fortnight later: Ferrante, after following her for some time, bounding through the wood at a distance of a hundred yards, fell upon her with the swiftness of a hawk, and flung himself at her feet as on the former occasion.
“Where were you a fortnight ago?”
“In the mountains, beyond Novi, robbing the muleteers who were returning from Milan where they had been selling oil.”
“Take this purse.”
Ferrante opened the purse, took from it a sequin which he kissed and thrust into his bosom, then handed it back to her.
“You give me back this purse, and you are a robber!”
“Certainly; my rule is that I must. never possess more than a hundred francs; now, at this moment, the mother of my children has eight francs, and I have twenty-five; I am five francs to the bad, and if they were to hang me now I should feel remorse. I have taken this sequin because it comes from you and I love you.”
The intonation of this very simple speech was perfect. “He does really love,” the Duchessa said to herself.
That day he appeared quite distracted. He said that there were in Parma people who owed him six hundred francs, and that with that sum he could repair his hut in which now his poor children were catching cold.
“But I will make you a loan of those six hundred francs,” said the Duchessa, genuinely moved.
“But then I, a public man — will not the opposite party have a chance to slander me, and say that I am selling myself?”
The Duchessa, in compassion, offered him a hiding-place in Parma if he would swear that for the time being he would not exercise his magistrature in that city, and above all would not carry out any of those sentences of death which, he said, he had in petto.
“And if they hang me, as a result of my rashness,” said Ferrante gravely, “all those scoundrels, who are so obnoxious to the People, will live for long years to come, and by whose fault? What will my father say to me when he greets me up above?”
The Duchessa spoke to him at length of his young children, to whom the damp might give fatal illnesses; he ended by accepting the offer of the hiding place in Parma.
The Duca Sanseverina, during the solitary half-day which he had spent in Parma after his marriage, had shewn the Duchessa a highly singular hiding place which exists in the southern corner of the palazzo of that name. The wall in front, which dates from the middle ages, is eight feet thick; it has been hollowed out inside, so as to provide a secret chamber twenty feet in height but only two in width. It is close to where the visitor admires the reservoir mentioned in all the accounts of travels, a famous work of the twelfth century, constructed at the time of the siege of Parma by the Emperor Sigismund, and afterwards enclosed within the walls of the palazzo Sanseverina.
One enters the hiding place by turning an enormous stone on an iron axis which runs through the middle of the block.
The Duchessa was so profoundly touched by Ferrante’s madness and by the hard lot of his children, for whom he obstinately refused every present of any value, that she allowed him to make use of this hiding place for a considerable time. She saw him again a month later, still in the woods of Sacca, and as on this occasion he was a little more calm, he recited to her one of his sonnets which seemed to her equal if not superior to any of the finest work written in Italy in the last two centuries. Ferrante obtained several interviews; but his love grew exalted, became importunate, and the Duchessa perceived that this passion was obeying the laws of all love-affairs in which one conceives the possibility of a ray of hope. She sent him back to the woods, forbade him to speak to her again: he obeyed immediately and with a perfect docility. Things had reached this point when Fabrizio was arrested. Three days later, at nightfall, a Capuchin presented himself at the door of the palazzo Sanseverina; he had, he said, an important secret to communicate to the lady of the house. She was so wretched that she had him admitted: it was Ferrante. “There is happening here a fresh iniquity of which the Tribune of the people ought to take cognisance,” this man mad with love said to her. “On the other hand, acting as a private citizen,” he added, “I can give the Signora Duchessa Sanseverina nothing but my life, and I lay it before her.”
So sincere a devotion on the part of a robber and madman touched the Duchessa keenly. She talked for some time to this man who was considered the greatest poet in the North of Italy, and wept freely. “Here is a man who understands my heart,” she said to herself. The following day he reappeared, again at the Ave Maria, disguised as a servant and wearing livery.
“I have not left Parma: I have heard tell of an atrocity which my lips shall not repeat; but here I am. Think, Signora, of what you are refusing! The being you see before you is not a doll of the court, he is a man!” He was on his knees as he uttered these words with an air which made them tell. “Yesterday I said to myself,” he went on: “She has wept in my presence; therefore she is a little less unhappy.”
“But, Sir, think of the dangers that surround you, you will be arrested in this town!”
“The Tribune will say to you: Signora, what is life when duty calls? The unhappy man, who has the grief of no longer feeling any passion for virtue now that he is burning with love, will add: Signora Duchessa, Fabrizio, a man of feeling, is perhaps about to perish, do not repulse another man of feeling who offers himself to you! Here is a body of iron and a heart which fears nothing in the world but your displeasure.”
“If you speak to me again of your feelings, I close my door to you for ever.”
It occurred to the Duchessa, that evening, to announce to Ferrante that she would make a small allowance to his children, but she was afraid that he would go straight from the house and kill himself.
No sooner had he left her than, filled with gloomy presentiments, she said to herself: “I too, I may die, and would to God I might, and that soon! If I found a man worthy of the name to whom to commend my poor Fabrizio.”
An idea struck the Duchessa: she took a sheet of paper and drafted an acknowledgment, into which she introduced the few legal terms that she knew, that she had received from Signor Ferrante Palla the sum of 25,000 francs, on the express condition of paying every year a life-rent of 1,500 francs to Signora Sarasine and her five children. The Duchessa added: “In addition, I bequeath a life-rent of 300 francs to each of these five children, on condition that Ferrante Palla gives his professional services as a physician to my nephew Fabrizio del Dongo, and behaves to him as a brother. This I request him to do.” She signed the document, ante-dated it by a year and folded the sheet.
Two days later, Ferrante reappeared. It was at the moment when the town was agitated by the rumour of the immediate execution of Fabrizio. Would this grim ceremony take place in the citadel, or under the trees of the public mall? Many of the populace took a walk that evening past the gate of the citadel, trying to see whether the scaffold were being erected; this spectacle had moved Ferrante. He found the Duchessa in floods of tears and unable to speak; she greeted him with her hand and pointed to a seat. Ferrante, disguised that day as a Capuchin, was superb; instead of seating himself he knelt, and prayed devoutly in an undertone. At a moment when the Duchessa seemed slightly more calm, without stirring from his posture, he broke off his prayer for an instant to say these words: “Once again he offers his life.”
“Think of what you are saying,” cried the Duchessa, with that haggard eye which, following tears, indicates that anger is overcoming emotion.
“He offers his life to place an obstacle in the way of Fabrizio’s fate, or to avenge it.”
“There are circumstances,” replied the Duchessa, “in which I could accept the sacrifice of your life.”
She gazed at him with a severe attention. A ray of joy gleamed in his eye; he rose swiftly and stretched out his arms towards heaven. The Duchessa went to find a paper hidden in the secret drawer of a walnut cabinet
“Read this,” she said to Ferrante. It was the deed in favour of his children, of which we have spoken.
Tears and sobs prevented Ferrante from reading it to the end; he fell on his knees.
“Give me back the paper,” said the Duchessa, and, in his presence, burned it in the flame of a candle.
“My name,” she explained, “must not appear if you are taken and executed, for your life will be at stake.”
“My joy is to die in harming the tyrant: a far greater joy is to die for you. Once this is stated and clearly understood, be so kind as to make no further mention of this detail of money. I might see in it a suspicion that would be injurious to me.”
“If you are compromised, I may be also,” replied the Duchessa, “and Fabrizio as well as myself: it is for that reason, and not because 1 have any doubt of your bravery, that I require that the man who is lacerating my heart shall be poisoned and not stabbed. For the same reason which is so important to me, I order you to do everything in the world to save your own life.”
“I shall execute the task faithfully, punctiliously and prudently. I foresee, Signora Duchessa, that my revenge will be combined with your own: were it not so, I should still obey you faithfully, punctiliously and prudently. I may not succeed, but I shall employ all my human strength.”
“It is a question of poisoning Fabrizio’s murderer.”
“So I had guessed, and, during the twenty-seven months in which I have been leading this vagabond and abominable life, I have often thought of a similar action on my own account.”
“If I am discovered and condemned as an accomplice,” went on the Duchessa in a tone of pride, “I do not wish the charge to be imputed to me of having corrupted you. I order you to make no further attempt to see me until the time comes for our revenge: he must on no account be put to death before I have given you the signal. His death at the present moment, for instance, would be lamentable to me instead of being useful. Probably his death will occur only in several months’ time, but it shall occur. I insist on his dying by poison, and I should prefer to leave him alive rather than see him shot. For considerations which I do not wish to explain to you, I insist upon your life’s being saved.”
Ferrante was delighted with the tone of authority which the Duchessa adopted with him: his eyes gleamed with a profound joy. As we have said, he was horribly thin; but one could see that he had been very handsome in his youth, and he imagined himself to be still what he had once been. “Am I mad?” he asked himself; “or will the Duchessa indeed one day, when I have given her this proof of my devotion, make me the happiest of men? And, when it comes to that, why not? Am I not worth as much as that doll of a Conte Mosca, who when the time came, could do nothing for her, not even enable Monsignor Fabrizio to escape?”
“I may wish his death tomorrow,” the Duchessa continued, still with the same air of authority. “You know that immense reservoir of water which is at the corner of the palazzo, not far from the hiding-place which you have sometimes occupied; there is a secret way of letting all that water run out into the street: very well, that will be the signal for my revenge. You will see, if you are in Parma, or you will hear it said, if you are living in the woods, that the great reservoir of the palazzo Sanseverina has burst. Act at once but by poison, and above all risk your own life as little as possible. No one must ever know that I have had a hand in this affair.”
“Words are useless,” replied Ferrante, with an enthusiasm which he could ill conceal: “I have already fixed on the means which I shall employ. The life of that man has become more odious to me than it was before, since I shall not dare to see you again so long as he is alive. I shall await the signal of the reservoir flooding the street.” He bowed abruptly and left the room. The Duchessa watched him go.
When he was in the next room, she recalled him.
“Ferrante!” she cried; “sublime man!”
He returned, as though impatient at being detained: his face at that moment was superb.
“And your children?”
“Signora, they will be richer than I; you will perhaps allow them some small pension.”
“Wait,” said the Duchessa as she handed him a sort of large case of olive wood, “here are all the diamonds that I have left: they are worth 50,000 francs.”
“Ah! Signora, you humiliate me!” said Ferrante with a gesture of horror; and his face completely altered.
“I shall not see you again before the deed: take them, I wish it,” added the Duchessa with an air of pride which struck Ferrante dumb; he put the case in his pocket and left her.
The door had closed behind him. The Duchessa called him back once again; he returned with an uneasy air: the Duchessa was standing in the middle of the room; she threw herself into his arms. A moment later, Ferrante had almost fainted with happiness; the Duchessa released herself from his embrace, and with her eyes shewed him the door.
“There goes the one man who has understood me,” she said to herself; “that is how Fabrizio would have acted, if he could have realised.”
There were two salient points in the Duchessa’s character: she always wished what she had once wished; she never gave any further consideration to what had once been decided. She used to quote in this connexion a saying of her first husband, the charming General Pietranera. “What insolence to myself!” he used to say; “Why should I suppose that I have more sense today than when I made up my mind?”
>From that moment a sort of gaiety reappeared in the Duchessa’s character. Before the fatal resolution, at each step that her mind took, at each new point that she saw, she had the feeling of her own inferiority to the Prince, of her weakness and gullibility; the Prince, according to her, had basely betrayed her, and Conte Mosca, as was natural to his courtier’s spirit, albeit innocently, had supported the Prince. Once her revenge was settled, she felt her strength, every step that her mind took gave her happiness. I am inclined to think that the immoral happiness which the Italians find in revenge is due to the strength of their imagination; the people of other countries do not properly speaking forgive; they forget.
The Duchessa did not see Palla again until the last days of Fabrizio’s imprisonment. As the reader may perhaps have guessed, it was he who gave her the idea of his escape: there was in the woods, two leagues from Sacca, a mediaeval tower, half in ruins, and more than a hundred feet high; before speaking a second time to the Duchessa of an escape, Ferrante begged her to send Lodovico with a party of trustworthy men, to fasten a set of ladders against this tower. In the Duchessa’s presence he climbed up by means of the ladders and down with an ordinary knotted cord; he repeated the experiment three times, then explained his idea again. A week later Lodovico too was prepared to climb down this old tower with a knotted cord; it was then that the Duchessa communicated the idea to Fabrizio.
In the final days before this attempt, which might lead to the death of the prisoner, and in more ways than one, the Duchessa could not secure a moment’s rest unless she had Ferrante by her side; the courage of this man electrified her own; but it can be understood that she had to hide from the Conte this singular companionship. She was afraid, not that he would be revolted, but she would have been afflicted by his objections, which would have increased her uneasiness. “What! Take as an intimate adviser a madman known to be mad, and under sentence of death! And,” added the Duchessa, speaking to herself, “a man who, in consequence, might do such strange things!” Ferrante happened to be in the Duchessa’s drawing-room at the moment when the Conte came to give her a report of the Prince’s conversation with Rassi; and, when the Conte had left her, she had great difficulty in preventing Ferrante from going straight away to the execution of a frightful plan.
“I am strong now,” cried this madman; “I have no longer any doubt as to the lawfulness of the act!”
“But, in the moment of indignation which must inevitably follow, Fabrizio would be put to death!”
“Yes, but in that way we should spare him the danger of the climb: it is possible, indeed easy,” he added; “but the young man lacks experience.”
The marriage was celebrated of the Marchese Crescenzi’s sister, and it was at the party given on this occasion that the Duchessa met Clelia, and was able to speak to her without causing any suspicion among the fashionable onlookers. The Duchessa herself handed to Clelia the parcel of cords in the garden, where the two ladies had gone for a moment’s fresh air. These cords, prepared with the greatest care, of hemp and silk in equal parts, were knotted, very slender and fairly flexible; Lodovico had tested their strength, and, in every portion, they could bear without breaking a load of sixteen hundredweight. They had been packed in such a way as to form several packets each of the size and shape of a quarto volume; Clelia took charge of them, and promised the Duchessa that everything that was humanly possible would be done to deliver these packets in the Torre Farnese.
“But I am afraid of the timidity of your nature; and besides,” the Duchessa added politely, “what interest can you feel in a stranger?”
“Signor del Dongo is in distress, and I promise you that he shall be saved by me!”
But the Duchessa, placing only a very moderate reliance on the presence of mind of a young person of twenty, had taken other precautions, of which she took care not to inform the governor’s daughter. As might be expected, this governor was present at the party given for the marriage of the Marchese Crescenzi’s sister. The Duchessa said to herself that, if she could make him be given a strong narcotic, it might be supposed, at first, that he had had an attack of apoplexy, and then, instead of his being placed in his carriage to be taken back to the citadel, it might, with a little arrangement, be possible to have the suggestion adopted of using a litter, which would happen to be in the house where the party was being given. There, too, would be gathered a body of intelligent men, dressed as workmen employed for the party, who, in the general confusion, would obligingly offer their services to transport the sick man to his palazzo, which stood at such a height. These men, under the direction of Lodovico, carried a sufficient quantity of cords, cleverly concealed beneath their clothing. One sees that the Duchessa’s mind had become really unbalanced since she had begun to think seriously of Fabrizio’s escape. The peril of this beloved creature was too much for her heart, and besides was lasting too long. By her excess of precaution, she nearly succeeded in preventing his escape, as we shall presently see. Everything went off as she had planned, with this one difference, that the narcotic produced too powerful an effect; everyone believed, including the medical profession, that the General had had an apoplectic stroke.
Fortunately, Clelia, who was in despair, had not the least suspicion of so criminal an attempt on the part of the Duchessa. The confusion was such at the moment when the litter, in which the General, half dead, was lying, entered the citadel, that Lodovico and his men passed in without challenge; they were subjected to a formal scrutiny only at the Slave’s Bridge. When they had carried the General to his bedroom, they were taken to the kitchens, where the servants entertained them royally; but after this meal, which did not end until it was very nearly morning, it was explained to them that the rule of the prison required that, for the rest of the night, they should be locked up in the lower rooms of the palazzo; in the morning at daybreak they would be released by the governor’s deputy.
These men had found an opportunity of handing to Lodovico the cords with which they had been loaded, but Lodovico had great difficulty in attracting Clelia’s attention for a moment. At length, as she was passing from one room to another, he made her observe that he was laying down packets of cords in a dark corner of one of the drawing-rooms of the first floor, Clelia was profoundly struck by this strange circumstance; at once she conceived atrocious suspicions.
“Who are you?” she asked Lodovico.
And, on receiving his highly ambiguous reply, she added:
“I ought to have you arrested; you or your masters have poisoned my father! Confess this instant what is the nature of the poison you have used, so that the doctor of the citadel can apply the proper remedies; confess this instant, or else, you and your accomplices shall never go out of this citadel!”
“The Signorina does wrong to be alarmed,” replied Lodovico, with a grace and politeness that were perfect; “there is no question of poison; someone has been rash enough to administer to the General a dose of laudanum, and it appears that the servant who was responsible for this crime poured a few drops too many into the glass; this we shall eternally regret; but the Signorina may be assured that, thank heaven, there is no sort of danger; the Signore must be treated for having taken, by mistake, too strong a dose of laudanum; but, I have the honour to repeat to the Signorina, the lackey responsible for the crime made no use of real poisons, as Barbone did, when he tried to poison Monsignor Fabrizio. There was no thought of revenge for the peril that Monsignor Fabrizio ran; nothing was given to this clumsy lackey but a bottle in which there was laudanum, that I swear to the Signorina! But it must be clearly understood that, if I were questioned officially, I should deny everything.
“Besides, if the Signorina speaks to anyone in the world of laudanum and poison, even to the excellent Don Cesare, Fabrizio is killed by the Signorina’s own hand. She makes impossible for ever all the plans of escape; and the Signorina knows better than I that it is not with laudanum that they wish to poison Monsignore; she knows, too, that a certain person has granted only a month’s delay for that crime, and that already more than a week has gone by since the fatal order was received. So, if she has me arrested, or if she merely says a word to Don Cesare or to anyone else, she retards all our activities far more than a month, and I am right in saying that she kills Monsignor Fabrizio with her own hand.”
Clelia was terrified by the strange tranquillity of Lodovico.
“And so,” she said to herself, “here I am conversing formally with my father’s poisoner, who employs polite turns of speech to address me! And it is love that has led me to all these crimes! . ..”
Her remorse scarcely allowed her the strength to speak; she said to Ludovico.
“I am going to lock you into this room. I shall run and tell the doctor that it is only laudanum; but, great God, how shall I tell him that I discovered this? I shall come back afterwards to release you. But,” said Clelia, running back from the door, “did Fabrizio know anything of the laudanum?”
“Heavens, no, Signorina, he would never have consented to that. And, besides, what good would it have done to make an unnecessary confidence? We are acting with the strictest prudence. It is a question of saving the life of Monsignore, who will be poisoned in three weeks from now; the order has been given by a person who is not accustomed to find any obstacle to his wishes; and, to tell the Signorina everything, they say that it was the terrible Fiscal General Rassi who received these instructions.”
Clelia fled in terror; she could so count on the perfect probity of Don Cesare that, taking certain precautions, she had the courage to tell him that the General had been given laudanum, and nothing else. Without answering, without putting any question, Don Cesare ran to the doctor.
Clelia returned to the room in which she had shut up Lodovico, with the intention of plying him with questions about the laudanum. She did not find him: he had managed to escape. She saw on the table a purse full of sequins and a box containing different kinds of poison. The sight of these poisons made her shudder. “How can I be sure,” she thought, “that they have given nothing but laudanum to my father, and that the Duchessa has not sought to avenge herself for Barbone’s attempt?
“Great God!” she cried, “here am I in league with my father’s poisoners. And I allow them to escape! And perhaps that man, when put to the question, would have confessed something else than laudanum!”
Clelia at once fell on her knees, burst into tears, and prayed to the Madonna with fervour.
Meanwhile the doctor of the citadel, greatly surprised by the information he had received from Don Cesare, according to which he had to deal only with laudanum, applied the appropriate remedies, which presently made the more alarming symptoms disappear. The General came to himself a little as day began to dawn. His first action that shewed any sign of consciousness was to hurl insults at the Colonel who was second in command of the citadel, and had taken upon himself to give certain orders, the simplest in the world, while the General was unconscious.
The governor next flew into a towering rage with a kitchen-maid who, when bringing him his soup, had been so rash as to utter the word apoplexy.
“Am I of an age,” he cried, “to have apoplexies? It is only my deadly enemies who can find pleasure in spreading such reports. And besides, have I been bled, that slander itself dare speak of apoplexy?”
Fabrizio, wholly occupied with the preparations for his escape, could not understand the strange sounds that filled the citadel at the moment when the governor was brought in half dead. At first he had some idea that his sentence had been altered, and that they were coming to put him to death. Then, seeing that no one came to his cell, he thought that Clelia had been betrayed, that on her return to the fortress they had taken from her the cords which probably she was bringing back, and so, that his plans of escape were for the future impossible. Next day, at dawn, he saw come into his room a man unknown to him, who, without saying a word, laid down a basket of fruit: beneath the fruit was hidden the following letter:
“Penetrated by the keenest remorse for what has been done, not, thank heaven, by my consent, but as the outcome of an idea which I had, I have made a vow to the Blessed Virgin that if, by the effect of Her holy intercession my father is saved, I will never refuse to obey any of his orders; I will marry the Marchese as soon as he requires me to do so, and I will never see you again. However, I consider it my duty to finish what has been begun. Next Sunday, when you return from mass, to which you will be taken at my request (remember to prepare your soul, you may kill yourself in the difficult enterprise); when you return from mass, I say, put off as long as possible going back to your room; you will find there what is necessary for the enterprise that you have in mind. If you perish, my heart will be broken! Will you be able to accuse me of having contributed to your death? Has not the Duchessa herself repeated to me upon several occasions that the Raversi faction is winning? They seek to bind the Prince by an act of cruelty that must separate him for ever from Conte Mosca. The Duchessa, with floods of tears, has sworn to me that there remains only this resource: you will perish unless you make an attempt. I cannot look at you again, I have made my vow; but if on Sunday, towards evening, you see me dressed entirely in black, at the usual window, it will be the signal that everything will be ready that night so far as my feeble means allow. After eleven, perhaps at midnight or at one o’clock, a little lamp will appear in my window, that will be the decisive moment; commend yourself to your Holy Patron, dress yourself in haste in the priestly habit with which you are provided, and be off.
“Farewell, Fabrizio, I shall be at my prayers, and shedding the most bitter tears, as you may well believe, while you are running such great risks. If you perish, I shall not outlive you a day; Great God! What am I saying? But if you succeed, I shall never see you again. On Sunday, after mass, you will find in your prison the money, the poison, the cords, sent by that terrible woman who loves you with passion, and who has three times over assured me that this course must be adopted. May God preserve you, and the Blessed Madonna!”
Fabio Conti was a gaoler who was always uneasy, always unhappy, always seeing in his dreams one of his prisoners escaping: he was loathed by everyone in the citadel; but misfortune inspiring the same resolutions in all men, the poor prisoners, even those who were chained in dungeons three feet high, three feet wide and eight feet long, in which they could neither stand nor sit, all the prisoners, even these, I say, had the idea of ordering a Te Deum to be sung at their own expense, when they knew that their governor was out of danger. Two or three of these wretches composed sonnets in honour of Fabio Conti. Oh, the effect of misery upon men! May he who would blame them be led by his destiny to spend a year in a cell three feet high, with eight ounces of bread a day and fasting on Fridays!
Clelia, who left her father’s room only to pray in the chapel, said that the governor had decided that the rejoicings should be confined to Sunday. On the morning of this Sunday, Fabrizio was present at mass and at the Te Deum; in the evening there were fireworks, and in the lower rooms of the palazzo the soldiers received a quantity of wine four times that which the governor had allowed; an unknown hand had even sent several barrels of brandy which the soldiers broached. The generous spirit of the soldiers who were becoming intoxicated would not allow the five of their number who were on duty as sentries outside the palazzo to suffer accordingly; as soon as they arrived at their sentry-boxes, a trusted servant gave them wine, and it was not known from what hand those who came on duty at midnight and for the rest of the night received also a glass each of brandy, while the bottle was in each case forgotten and left by the sentry-box (as was proved in the subsequent investigations).
The disorder lasted longer than Clelia had expected, and it was not until nearly one o’clock that Fabrizio, who, more than a week earlier, had sawn through two bars of his window, the window that did not look out on the aviary, began to take down the screen; he was working almost over the heads of the sentries who were guarding the governor’s palazzo, they heard nothing. He had made some fresh knots only in the immense cord necessary for descending from that terrible height of one hundred and eighty feet. He arranged this cord as a bandolier about his body: it greatly embarrassed him, its bulk was enormous; the knots prevented it from being wound close, and it projected more than eighteen inches from his body. “This is the chief obstacle,” said Fabrizio.
This cord once arranged as well as possible, Fabrizio took the other with which he counted on climbing down the thirty-five feet which separated his window from the terrace on which the governor’s palazzo stood. But inasmuch as, however drunken the sentries might be, he could not descend exactly over their heads, he climbed out, as we have said, by the second window of his room, that which looked over the roof of a sort of vast guard-room. By a sick man’s whim, as soon as General Fabio Conti was able to speak, he had ordered up two hundred soldiers into this old guard-room, disused for over a century. He said that after poisoning him, they would seek to murder him in his bed, and these two hundred soldiers were to guard him. One may judge of the effect which this unforeseen measure had on the heart of Clelia: that pious girl was fully conscious to what an extent she was betraying her father, and a father who had just been almost poisoned in the interests of the prisoner whom she loved. She almost saw in the unexpected arrival of these two hundred men an act of Providence which forbade her to go any farther and to give Fabrizio his freedom.
But everyone in Parma was talking of the immediate death of the prisoner. This grim subject had been discussed again at the party given on the occasion of the marriage of Donna Giulia Crescenzi. Since for such a mere trifle as a clumsy sword-thrust given to an actor, a man of Fabrizio’s birth was not set at liberty at the end of nine months’ imprisonment, and when he had the protection of the Prime Minister, it must be because politics entered into the case. And in that event, it was useless to think any more about him, people said; if it was not convenient to authority to put him to death in a public place, he would soon die of sickness. A locksmith who had been summoned to General Fabio Conti’s palazzo spoke of Fabrizio as of a prisoner long since dispatched, whose death was being kept secret from motives of policy. This man’s words decided Clelia.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00